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Our Own “Fake Accounts”: a debut novel for the internet era

Lauren Oyler explores our never-ending, self-conscious online discourse

Virginia Woolf wasn’t very online. Neither was Jane Austen, nor Joan Didion. Even Zadie Smith, who started writing after the internet’s inception, has sworn off Twitter. To be an author is to remove yourself from the Discourse — the chorus of opinions and commentary circulating throughout media — keep your attention to the page, publish a book and promptly exit the conversation. To be an author is to be remote, elusive — a Luddite. At least, that’s how it had been.

Lauren Oyler is very online. She not only interacts with the Discourse, she creates it, churning out critique after critique for various publications, shifting her ire from Sally Rooney onto Roxanne Gay. Her newly released debut novel, “Fake Accounts, is a hyper-conscious, technophilic discourse within itself. As the book comments on our social media habits, ripping open our own fake accounts, it is also commenting on its own style, disinterested in extricating itself from the book that is being viewed, commented on or liked. “Fake Accounts” is aware that it will be read.

That self-reflexiveness is the genius of Oyler’s debut, and it requires an awareness that, sadly, could only be achieved through endless hours of tweeting. Being active online creates the paradigm on which Oyler’s novel rests: you are commenting or you are being commented on; you are disliking or you are being disliked; you are tweeting or you are being tweeted about. Every contribution to the Discourse is also an implicit capitulation to the Discourse: you can now be dissected. 

Operating in this way creates a paradoxical view of self within every young adult. You assume an extreme arrogance — people care about what I have to say, people care about what I post. But this spawns an extreme self-consciousness — I am saying something dumb, I am posting something ugly. In an internet era of instant mass communication, it has become impossible to share into the void without the return of an echo with ten times the force. 

This is the central tension in Oyler’s “Fake Accounts,” a book that follows a nameless narrator as she breaks up with a boyfriend, moves to Berlin, dates and tweets. She uses a phrase that comes to define the book while panicking about misrepresenting herself to her future boyfriend: She “thinks he might think” she’s a specific kind of person. She also thinks we might think the story is boring, hence one section’s title: “The Middle: Nothing Happens.” She thinks we might think she’s taking something too seriously, hence her perennial use of “ha ha ha” to cue irony (a tool she employs in a scathing takedown of writer Jia Tolentino’s collection of essays, “Trick Mirror”). She thinks we might think she fell too fast for her boyfriend Felix, so she “would like to deny that I liked him very much at this point.” This is a self-conscious narrator within a self-conscious novel written by a self-conscious author. 

The most immediate quality that derives from such complicated levels of perception and consciousness is, of course, humor. Oyler is funny, in her writing and tweets. Balancing on the precarious point between self-consciousness and arrogance, the narrator writes of a bad date, “it was not this man’s fault that he had a bad personality, but I was totally responsible for leading him to believe he didn’t.” Blanketing meanness with a thin veil of self-deprecation is how we justify and subsequently trivialize our negative thoughts. We can preemptively excuse our hatred of another by hating ourselves more. Ha ha ha. We are all, as the narrator writes, “teetering … on the border between likable and loathsome.”

The omnipresent irony, sarcasm and general cynicism of “Fake Accounts” are broken up, as they are in life, sporadically. Certain real-life events are so massive, so grand, that our own circuitous perceptions simply cannot be digested through Twitter and gallows humor. One of these moments in “Fake Accounts” occurs at the cell-phone-service-less 2016 Women’s March in D.C., an event rife with opportunity for bitterness. The narrator somewhat indulges this, “I was overcome with the sense that I needed to go, and it did not feel good,” but depicts the event as really, truly important. The weight of her real body, being in a real place, means something “so multifaceted and specific that only general, sweeping words fit perfectly.” For a second. 

Our narrator then becomes claustrophobic, aggressively shouldering her way out of the mass just as the march is officially beginning. After she escapes to a restaurant and starts scrolling through her phone, she wonders if she’s in any of the photos, “captured from a bad angle and contributing to some nebulous statement I didn’t necessarily agree with.” 

Her perception of the event is transferred from her own sight — “the sense of population was geometric and unsteadying” — to what others’ perception of the event will be later on. Highlighting one of the ironies in our technological age — an irony that is played with throughout the book — social media paradoxically slows our responses by introducing a digital middleman to every action. We perceive based on how others will perceive. We see based on how we will be seen. “Fake Accounts,” it follows, is written as a book that knows it is going to be read.

These cycles of perception, as the book’s occasionally maximalist tone illustrates, are exhausting. We all feel as though we are caught in the throes of the digital world, stuck beneath its spires as it tells us what to like and what to hate, who to “@” and who to block, how to look and how to be seen. But to what extent are these online personas of ours “approximated,” as the narrator asks herself, and to what extent do we “approximate” our own personas? 

The narrator shares our belief that it is “easier to think of technology as something that was happening to me rather than acknowledge that I was doing something with it.” But, as the narrator’s determined forays into online dating illustrate, we choose to enter this digital world. And, as the mysterious plot of her ex-boyfriend Felix proves, we can choose to leave it whenever we please. The lie that we must be online, that we are feeble putty in the hands of the Dorseys and Zuckerburgs who mold our real lives into timelines, is another example of the “the ways in which we casually commit fakery ourselves.” 

“Fake Accounts” is funny and charming, including all the wit and “hot takes” of a seasoned Twitter intellectual like Oyler. It’s also endlessly, devastatingly depressing. Oyler knows, and expresses, that we can exit the looping madness of the Discourse using the same agency with which we entered it. But her narrator, until the bitter end, remains concerned about her tweets. And Oyler herself, more aware than most about the dangers of social media, is as active as ever, highlighting reviews of her novel and sharing that “yesterday i was in a bad mood. today i am in a good mood!!” to her 23,600 Twitter followers. 

In truth, we know that if we were to disconnect, we would risk being seen as disconnected. We think people — personas, fake accounts — would care about us leaving. We can only see our departure from the social media feedback loop through a prism of self-consciousness where others’ perceptions of our departure are the primary concern.  

“Fake Accounts” posits these dangerous possibilities and then ends. Is there a world offline that “makes immediate sense,” a world that is pure and unfiltered? Is there a way to exist offline where your thoughts populate according to your own consciousness, where you can perceive yourself as yourself? “Ha ha ha.”



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